Terry Higgins (‘Terry Higgins - Three Ages of Terry’) by Curtis Holder

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[IMAGE] Three drawings of a white man, largely drawn in red pencil with the bare-chested central figure filling most of the portrait, and the other two figures visible over each shoulder.
Terry Higgins, one of the first people in the UK to die of an AIDS-related illness, by Curtis Holder
Terry Higgins ('Terry Higgins – Three Ages of Terry')
by Curtis Holder
coloured pencil on paper, 2023
16 1/8 in. x 11 1/4 in. (410 mm x 287 mm) overall
NPG 7162
© Curtis Holder
On display in Room 28 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Terry Higgins (1945–1982) was one of the first people in the UK to die of an AIDS-related illness, at a time when there was still very little public awareness of HIV Human Immunodeficiency Virus – the virus that can cause AIDS, a serious illness that attacks the body’s ability to resist infection. and AIDS Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – a serious illness caused by a virus called HIV that attacks the body’s ability to resist infection. .

Shortly after Higgins’s death, his partner and friends set up the Terrence Higgins Trust to raise awareness of the disease and fund research. By doing this, they hoped that some good would come from their friend’s death. This was the first charity in the UK to respond to the AIDS epidemic and is now the UK’s largest provider of HIV and sexual health services.

Analysing the portrait

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[IMAGE] Three drawings of a white man, largely drawn in red pencil with the bare-chested central figure filling most of the portrait, and the other two figures visible over each shoulder.
Terry Higgins ('Terry Higgins – Three Ages of Terry'), by Curtis Holder, 2023

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • The portrait includes three drawings of Terry Higgins.
    • The central figure is the clearest and shows Higgins as a young man.
    • The figures either side are less distinct. They show Higgins as a teenager to our left, and approaching middle age to our right.
    • The figure of Higgins as a young man dominates the centre of the composition. 
    • His bare shoulders and chest fill the bottom half of the portrait, and the top of his head is cropped by the top edge of the paper. 
    • We notice this figure first. Our eyes travel up from his pale chest to the subtle details of his face and his dark eyes. 
    • We then notice the two additional drawings of Higgins emerging from the mid-tone of the background. 
    • Holder has used only two colours to create the portrait.  
    • He has used a deep red pencil for most of the drawing. This is a reference to the red ribbon, the universal symbol of awareness and support for people living with HIV Human Immunodeficiency Virus – the virus that can cause AIDS, a serious illness that attacks the body’s ability to resist infection. .
    • He has emphasised the shadows (for example, the areas under Higgins’s chin) with a dark blue pencil. He has also used the blue pencil to darken Higgins’s hair and accentuate some of the outlines around his face and shoulders. 
    • For the lighter areas and highlights, he has used bare white paper, which becomes part of the colour scheme.
    • The central figure faces forwards, as does the figure of Higgins as a teenager. In the third figure, he’s turning and looking at us over his shoulder.
    • His expression appears serious in all three images.  
    • The central figure shows Higgins looking slightly past us into the distance.
    • The two figures either side look straight at us with an intense Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. . 
    • Holder has used soft, scribbly marks to build up the Tone A shade of a colour. of the portrait, possibly using the pencil on its side. 
    • He has used a dark, sharp line to outline the shape of the central figure’s face and shoulders.  
    • He has varied the marks to suggest the light and dark Tone A shade of a colour. on Higgins’s face. In the shadowed areas, the marks cover the paper evenly. In the highlighted areas, the less dense marks allow more of the white paper to show through.  
    • He has used fewer marks on the shoulders and chest. This makes them stand out against the darker tone of the background. 
    • The other two images of Higgins are less distinct and blend into the mid-tone of the background. Their faces are not outlined, and we can only just make out the features. 
    • By including drawings of Terry Higgins at three different stages of his life, Holder tells us more about his sitter than a portrait of a single figure might do.  
    • The focus of the portrait is Higgins as a young man in his prime, when he was healthy and happy and living in London. His chest is bare, perhaps suggesting his physicality and sexuality. 
    • The portrait of Higgins as a teenager reflects the years that he spent in the Royal Navy, when he faced hostility as a gay man and couldn’t express his sexuality.  
    • The third portrait of Higgins suggests the last years of his life. This was a time when AIDS Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – a serious illness caused by a virus called HIV that attacks the body’s ability to resist infection. had begun to impact gay communities around the world and was already affecting Higgins’s health. In this portrait, he looks back at us over his shoulder. 
    • As well as showing his different ages, these three figures also reference different aspects of Higgins’s character: his strength and vigour but also his vulnerability.
I came to appreciate the man behind the name ... I wanted the portrait to offer a snapshot of the stages of his short and impactful life, and to show how the individual parts informed the whole.
Curtis Holder, 2023

Who was Terry Higgins?

  • Terrence Higgins (known as Terry) was born in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
  • He joined the Royal Navy at the age of eighteen, in 1963, but faced hostility as a gay man and decided to leave. Gay men and other members of the LGBTQ+ community were banned from serving in the Armed Forces until 2000.
  • He moved to London, where there was a rapidly expanding gay bar and club scene.
  • This was partly due to changing attitudes towards homosexuality in the 1960s and the partial Decriminalisation The act of changing the law so that something is no longer a crime. of homosexuality in 1967. The work of the Gay Liberation Front A protest group, which originated in the USA in 1969, that demanded equal rights for LGBT people. from the early 1970s also helped to make homosexuality more widely accepted.
  • In 1981, Higgins became ill. He collapsed in June 1982 and died in hospital on 4 July 1982 at the age of 37, of AIDS-related illnesses.
  • Higgins's death came at a time of increasing fear in the gay community over a disease which appeared to specifically affect gay men.
  • Not much was known about this disease, and little was being done to prevent it from spreading.
  • Shortly after his death, Higgins’s partner and friends set up the Terrence Higgins Trust in his name, to raise awareness and fund research into HIV Human Immunodeficiency Virus – the virus that can cause AIDS, a serious illness that attacks the body’s ability to resist infection. and AIDS Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – a serious illness caused by a virus called HIV that attacks the body’s ability to resist infection. .
  • The Terrence Higgins Trust is now the largest provider of HIV and sexual health services in the UK.

Who is Curtis Holder?

  • Curtis Holder (born 1968) is a London-based artist. He works mainly in Graphite A soft black mineral used to make pencils. and coloured pencil and creates large-scale portraits and figurative works on paper.
  • He studied graphic design and animation in London and worked as a primary school teacher while developing his practice as an artist.
  • In 2020, Holder won Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, a prestigious portraiture award. The panel of judges described his work as ‘magical … courageous and startlingly new’.
  • Holder has said that he often looks at the work of other artists for inspiration. His technique of creating a mesh-like layer of marks overlaid with sharp outlines can be compared to the technique used by the artist Frank Auerbach in his portraits. 

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This portrait marks the 40th anniversary of the Terrence Higgins Trust, the charity set up in Terry Higgins’s name.
  • Curtis Holder was Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. by the National Portrait Gallery to create this portrait, supported by the Terrence Higgins Trust. It is the first portrait of Terry Higgins and the first work by Curtis Holder to become part of the Gallery’s Collection.
  • In making his portraits, he usually takes inspiration from conversations with the people he draws.
  • For this portrait, Holder worked from personal photographs and memories shared by Rupert Whitaker, Higgins’s partner and one of the founding members of the Trust. These included a photograph of Higgins as a teenager, which had never been seen publicly.
  • Although Terrence Higgins’s name is widely known from the Trust, this portrait helps puts a face, life and memories to the name.

Questions

  1. Why do you think Curtis Holder chose to show Higgins at different points in his life in this portrait?
  1. What do you think Curtis Holder is trying to say about Higgins?
  1. How might this portrait inspire your own work?